Saturday, March 22, 2008

It's been five years, and the fog of war that settled over our nation has never really lifted

The Fog of War
It was the first day of spring and the day after the U.S. attacked Iraq. Madison was blanketed by a fog that was as depressing as the day, and we were out of our minds with anger and despair. It was late, but we drove to the Capitol Square to join the vigil we thought would still be there. But when we arrived, candles in hand, the fogged-in Square was virtually deserted. We met a woman carrying a homemade sign. She asked if we knew where the demonstration was. We wandered around for a while, loking for other people. Way up in the one of the top floors of the Inn on the Park, drunks high on booze and war fever saw the sign, leaned out of a window, and shouted "Fuckin' liberals!" and "Go back to France!" That's what they saw, just three more cheese eating surrender monkeys.

Support Our Troops: Bring Them HomeWhen we got to the State Street corner of the Square, we saw signs left from the demonstration scattered around the Forward statue -- and one held high, where someone had climbed up and planted the sign in her hand: "Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home."

Five years later, with all that's happened, we still haven't answered that simple plea, and the fog of war has settled in like a miasma of bad faith and moral bankruptcy. When the Cold War ended and peace threatened to break out, back when people still talked about a "peace dividend," the first President Bush forestalled the threat of peace with the first Gulf War. His son put the Forever War on a footing that now seems as permanent as the Cold War once appeared to be. The Republican presidential candidate justifies torture and says the conflict may last 100 years or more, and even the Democratic contenders hedge their withdrawal proposals with caveats and conditions that suggest anything but a quick withdrawal. Public opinion has turned against the war without really turning toward peace. We're still wandering around, lost in the fog, while the madness continues.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Madison's Good Friday blizzard

Spring Snow in Vilas Park: Runners
Seems like a bit of a bait-and-switch operation after yesterday's gorgeous, sunny weather on the first day of spring (here's hoping my caterpillar buddy found a good place to take shelter). Today, Madison's record snowfall accumulation for the winter is rapidly closing in on the 100-inch mark (though I'm not sure it gets counted since, technically speaking, it's not winter anymore). The spring snow certainly was beautiful -- as long as you didn't have to go anyplace in your car. Driving was hazardous, with numerous accidents and slideoffs. These runners in Vilas park probably had the right idea.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wooly Bear out for a walk on the first day of spring, in search of its destiny as an Isabella Tiger Moth

Wooly Bear Walking Toward a Sunny Future As an Isabella Moth
I was out for a warm sunny walk on the first day of spring when I noticed a fellow creature out doing the same. It still seemed a bit sluggish from its long sleep, but this Wooly Bear clearly was enjoying the warm pavement of a bike path. I had forgotten they come out this time of year.
Woolly Bear Caterpillars are usually seen in the fall as they search about for a perfect place to curl up and spend the winter, which is usually under bark, a rock, a log, etc. Their heavy coats, along with producing natural organic antifreeze, help them over-winter. They can actually survive -90 degree F temperatures!

In the spring, they warm back up, begin to feed for a while and then form a cocoon, pupate and emerge as the Isabella Tiger Moth. Fertilized female moths lay their eggs on a variety of plants including birch, elm, maples, asters, sunflowers, spinach, cabbage, grass, and plantain, where the eggs hatch. The small caterpillars begin to feed on their host plants and the process starts all over again. There are usually 2-3 generations each year and it’s the last generation that over-winters as the Woolly Bear Caterpillar.
This time of year, the bands seem to be less an augury of the next winter than a record of the rigors of the winter just past. The Wooly Bear seemed so glad to be out in the sun after this crazy winter that I didn't have the heart to tell it that the weather forecast for tomorrow predicts 4-8 inches of snow.

The most predictable headline on earth


Did anyone ever think that all the hue and cry for the Clintons to release their records would lead to anything but this? That there would be any purpose served except to feed this sort of media frenzy? It was totally predictable that, as soon as the documents became available, media bigfoots like "Brian Ross and the ABC Investigative Unit" would sprint over to their trusty old dog-eared copy of the Starr Report and gleefully start cross checking dates. It must have seemed like old times, back when they could let Ken Starr do all their work for them. Nearly seven years after the Clintons left the White House, the media still treat their marriage like an open book -- and the gift that keeps on giving. The same sort of thing is bound to happen with their tax returns.

By ceaselessly repeating the Republican meme that the Clintons must have something to hide because they’re so obviously sleazy, the Obama campaign wasn’t just hurting Hillary Clinton, they were damaging all Democrats, and they should have known better. It’s not as if the same tactics aren’t starting to be used against Obama. The more of this reflexive Democrat bashing the media gets away with, the more they are encouraged to continue. Unless we want the road to a McCain presidency to be paved with media gotchas, we need to fight back. Susie Madrak has some good ideas.

Madison residents will want to add about five minutes to their sundial's time today

Minutes Fast or Slow Depending on the Season
Happy Spring Equinox! If you're in Madison today and your thoughts turn toward the sun and its movement across the sky, you might want to visit this wonderful old sundial at Allen Centennial Gardens on the University of Wisconsin campus. And if you happen to have a sundial in your own backyard, be sure to add about five minutes to the time it reads today.

The offset has nothing to with the Spring Equinox. It's just the adjustment that has to be made this time of year for the sun's apparent figure-eight path across the sky in the course of a year, which is called an analemma. The corrections are plotted on the plaque attached to the Allen gardens sundial. Wikipedia explains the adjustment:
The orbit of the Earth is not perfectly circular and its rotational axis not perfectly perpendicular to its orbit, which together produce small variations in the sundial time throughout the year. This correction — which may be as great as 15 minutes — is described by the equation of time. A more sophisticated sundial design is required to incorporate this correction automatically; alternatively, a small plaque can be affixed to the sundial giving the offsets at various times of the year.
The article has lots of links if you want to explore the subject in greater detail -- including links to analemma and the equation of time.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

New Schrute Buck hits new low, while former Wizard says our bubble economy wasn't his fault


Back last September, when I wondered if the dollar was the new Schrute Buck, it was actually pretty strong compared to where the dollar is now, and where it seems to be heading (chart). Eventually, if a country decides it's going to ignore the lessons of history and have guns and butter and houses and all kinds of stuff and low taxes as well because, hey, the money can always be borrowed, it will turn its currency into Schrute Bucks of ever decreasing value.

Meanwhile Alan Greenspan, the former Wizard of the Fed who was the economic architect of our current situation, sent another one of his missives from afar explaining the markets are inherently unpredictable, new forces are at work, and besides, we will never have a perfect model of risk.
But these models do not fully capture what I believe has been, to date, only a peripheral addendum to business-cycle and financial modelling – the innate human responses that result in swings between euphoria and fear that repeat themselves generation after generation with little evidence of a learning curve. Asset-price bubbles build and burst today as they have since the early 18th century, when modern competitive markets evolved. To be sure, we tend to label such behavioural responses as non-rational. But forecasters’ concerns should be not whether human response is rational or irrational, only that it is observable and systematic.

This, to me, is the large missing “explanatory variable” in both risk-management and macroeconometric models. Current practice is to introduce notions of “animal spirits”, as John Maynard Keynes put it, through “add factors”. That is, we arbitrarily change the outcome of our model’s equations. Add-factoring, however, is an implicit recognition that models, as we currently employ them, are structurally deficient; it does not sufficiently address the problem of the missing variable.
Translation: It's not my fault.

Someday we'll look back and wonder how so many people took this wizard so seriously for so long. Remember when the Wizard of Oz took off in his balloon and left Dorothy behind? At least she could tap her magic slippers together and wake up from her dream. We don't have any magic slippers, just those incredible shrinking Schrute Bucks, and we seem to be trapped in a nightmare with no end in sight.

Walking to Allen Centennial Gardens from Picnic Point on a sunny day in mid-March

For Everything There is a Season
It wasn't exactly balmy Sunday afternoon, but it was sunny and the temperature was pleasant. A great day for a walk, finally. We walked from Picnic Point to Allen Centennial Gardens on the UW-Madison campus, where even the flagstones spoke of the changing seasons.

We walked along the white expanse of Lake Mendota, still frozen solid and a reminder of the long, hard winter that's about to draw to a close. Along the way we spotted different kinds of creatures entranced by the first signs of open water along the shore at points where warmer water flowed into the lake.

There was still a lot of snow on the ground at Allen Gardens, but, here and there, the first green signs of spring were starting to push through the moist earth. They included these early bloomers, the flowers called Garden Snowdrops. They're known for their early arrival, and can bloom weeks before crocuses do. Also, snowdrops (like other members of the Amaryllis family) are normally avoided by deer and rodents.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Stats suggest Lake Mendota will remain a giant iceberg a bit longer than Lake Monona

More Stable Platform for Ice Fishing on Other Side of Isthmus
As the smaller of Madison's two biggest lakes, Lake Monona typically thaws sooner than its larger sibling, which is why it is now melting and turning into one big waterpark and will not support its large cast of ice fishermen much longer.

In contrast, just to the north on the other side of the isthmus, Lake Mendota is likely to continue providing a stable platform for this curious male bonding ritual a little longer. How much time do these guys have left on their big ice raft? The answer varies considerably from year to year. The median opening date for Lake Mendota is April 5, but last year it opened on March 27. In the past, it has opened as early as February 27 (1998), and as late as May 6 (1857).

Asking when the lake opens also raises a larger philosophical question: What do we mean by a lake being "open" and how do we measure it? The Wisconsin State Climatology Office provides some answers on their website, which explains that it's important to maintain consistency with observational methods that would have been available to 19th century observers, so the records can be meaningfully compared. Surprisingly, the methodology bears some relationship to the earliest date a case of beer can be transported from Picnic Point to Maple Bluff by boat.
Determining the opening and closing dates for Lake Mendota is more of a challenge because the length and shape of the lake would require a sufficiently high vantage point that was not readily available to 19th century observers. Partly because Lake Mendota has a more irregular shoreline, an important secondary criterion applies for that lake: whether one can row a boat between Picnic Point and Maple Bluff. This rule arose from the era of E. A. Birge and Chancey Juday (according to Reid Bryson, founder of the UW Meteorology Dept., now known as the Dept. of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences), because they frequently were out on the lake in a rowboat, and the ice along that line determined if they could transport a case of beer over to their friends in Maple Bluff.
I find it reassurring that the underpinnings of the scientific method are so thoroughly rigorous.